Website editor Eveline Bolt was one of the university students of care-ethicist Frans Vosman from 2009-2012 and from 2012 onwards, also member of the editorial board of this website, of which Frans Vosman was founder, member and mentor.
It was joyful to meet him each month, to discuss the direction the website should take, to be able to witness (and trying to understand) developments in his thinking… His formal and informal teachings have been an immense source of inspiration to me. To illustrate this, I would like to take you along to a small town in the eastern part of the Netherlands. For quite some time now I have been member of the municipality’s Advisory Board in the social domain.
In this article I want to show, from my (care-ethical) perspective, what happens within this advisory board as well as between this board and the town council. In doing so, I hope to illustrate how a couple of issues relevant to the political care ethics become apparent in our ‘daily’ practice as an advisory board. I will start however, by briefly explaining what the Advisory Board does and aims to bring about. I will subsequently explore a couple of issues.
In the Netherlands, all towns and cities have an Advisory Board for the Social Domain. In my town this board consists of a group of inhabitants who are part of the board on a personal basis. Its aim is to advise the town council on issues within the social domain, both on content (what should be done in the social domain, what do its members consider to be the care responsibilities of local government) as well as on procedures (how should things be done?). Although all members are part of the board on a personal basis, we aim to give voice to fellow-citizens, in particular to fellow-citizens who depend on social provisions by the municipality.
We provide advice in a variety of ways, however always trying to take the perspective of these fellow-citizens. Not only do we, upon request by the municipal council, advise on policy documents or regulations, we also provide advice without formally being asked by the council. We then advise on issues we consider to be important, on grounds of fellow-citizens having informed us on these issues.
With regard to a care-ethical view on what happens on forums like our website, Frans Vosman showed me the importance of a critical way of looking, of asking clarifying yet critical questions, of delaying moral judgement (to cite professor Vosman: to employ ‘minima moralia’), of preventing false romantic ideas with regard to what he called ‘burning issues’, for example presupposing a harmonious ‘we’ when trying to improve care-delivery.
I also became receptive towards topics emerging from practices that become visible when looking through care-ethical glasses. Below I will address some of these topics without referring to specific publications by Prof. Vosman. However, I do still hear his soft voice and experience his patience as he was providing me (as his student and as member of the editorial board) with insights that now help me to get through in life.
His thinking has been of great importance for the development of Care Ethics and his legacy in terms of publications is huge. See Guus Timmerman’s bibliography ((1)).
Who is we?
An Advisory Board could be considered as a small community, a group of people referring to itself as a ‘we’ and being referred to as a ‘you’. We have a common goal indeed: to provide good advice by looking from the perspective of inhabitants. A broadly formulated goal, valid for all members of the Advisory Board, since we all intend to provide advice on how local government should look after its citizens.
‘All voices at the table’?
But who is ‘we’? Do we have all voices at the table, as is often too easily assumed? After all, vacancies are broadly announced, anyone is eligible. Yet, the application committee is composed of council members. Are they sufficiently aware of the council’s composition vis-à-vis the demographics of our town? Are they sufficiently aware of their own prejudices regarding fellow-citizens who are not alike? Moreover, maybe not all people who would be eligible, do wish to be part of a formal body like the Advisory Board. Proper representation then actually is an issue and getting a proper view on what is at stake for citizens is at risk.
‘The we-feeling’ and disqualifying
There also seems to be quite a romantic idea about this ‘we’. After all, aren’t we all looking at the same thing? Yet, taking a closer look at what happens in this small community the we-feeling sometimes might be hard to find.
The socio-economic background as well as the housing area and conditions of the board members differ. This brings about differences of opinion on what local government should (not) do. This sometimes causes conflict, the challenge then is to keep talking, to keep trying to understand rather than to disqualify one another and to deny each other the right to speak and be listened to.
The board member who is frustrated, being hit hard by local housing policy, might silence the well-to-do board member (who lives in a house which is her property), convinced about her inability to take his perspective. The well-to-do member in turn could be silencing the frustrated citizen, because his frustration makes him think and talk in a way that would be unacceptable to her.
Disciplining is a two-sided process, in which one party wants the other party to do or say something in a way convenient to him/her. The other party obeys, goes along in his/her thinking and in existing procedures. This leaves little or no space for one’s own free and creative thinking.
As member of the Advisory Board for the Social Domain, I felt that the course of our discussions was largely determined by procedures of the city council. Our agenda reflected what the council wanted us to look at and how we were to look at it.
Remaining within the procedural framework our discussions were often little inspirational, let alone that they reflected the citizens perspective. Realizing this we now try to stay away from procedures and develop our own agenda, thus making more room for what we think is important from the perspective of citizens (while doing so realizing our limited representation). In this way daily life of ordinary people becomes more often leading in unsolicited advice.
Government policy may render people vulnerable and put them in a precarious position. A painful example we experienced recently, has been the change in policy with respect to people ‘at a distance from the labour market’, as we put it in The Netherlands. This distance often is the result of ‘the market’ not being willing to make room for people with a mental of physical handicap. Where previously there would be sheltered and protected labour facilities, the liberal government decided such people now had to be given or find for themselves a place on the labour market. This would increase their self-esteem (and be a lot cheaper, but this argument was often not mentioned out loud).
Talking to them about these plans, it appeared that many felt anxious, ultimately fearing to lose their current job that was not too stressful and therefore just right for them. Yet, the governmental plans were accepted by the local council, without too many objections, hence putting inhabitants in an even more precarious position than they already found themselves in. An Advisory Board should assist them in uncovering their worries and advise local governments on how to mitigate negative effects.
Language and positioning
Readers may have noticed that I used words like citizens and inhabitants interchangeably. I did this on purpose. What do these words evoke? The word citizen positions a person in the hierarchy of the public domain and public service. A citizen has rights and duties toward the governmental institution. He/she adheres (or at least should adhere) to the law.
The word inhabitant comes much closer to the private sphere, a sphere governmental institutions want to stay away from (with or without invoking laws and procedures). However, if local government wants to perform its caring responsibilities, it also has to look at citizens as inhabitants. For an Advisory Board, this means staying alert to this type of framing.
In this article I have tried to reflect on issues popping up from the functioning of an Advisory Board in the social domain. Issues that I think are relevant in the political care ethics. Issues I was capable of addressing due to lessons I learned from Frans Vosman. May he rest in peace.
(1) In this respect I also want to mention Prof. Andries Baart, a close colleague and fellow of Frans Vosman.